Bulk Spirits Futurism: Round 2, Tackling The Glass Problem

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Distilleries have made incredible strides in their own carbon foot prints with many hitting carbon neutrality if you can believe the PRs [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8], but that all quickly ends at the point of distribution when spirits are bottled in extravagant glass that too often has an incredibly short shelf life and in many cases being of little or no value to consumers. Numbers are slowly becoming clearer but it appears to take more carbon to produce the bottle than to create the distillate that fills it. To evolve this system, likely to a bulk format with re-usable containers, we need to figure out quickly where we are at and what our options are.

I aim to advance some rules of thumb as well as points of consideration that may aid anyone tackling this topic so that we can build a sustainable future. We need to get in touch with bottle weights on the market today so that within our current legal system we can trim excessive glass right away. If many producers enjoy sales success with 500 grams per liter bottles, why do others feel the need to use a massive 700 grams and can we inspire some to trim the bloat? Can we identify and reward the most exemplary, promoting them as role models? Some bars already are.

The Financial Times just published a nice article on the minimalist back bar and the ending paragraph devotes attention to: “Eco-spirits, a company that distributes spirits in refillable vessels”. These industry leading bars are no doubt picking role models and anyone that isn’t hip to that, may get dropped. More on Eco-spirits at the end. There is so much pent up interest in this packaging topic and buyers have the ability to quickly become activists that I truly believe there will be winners and losers with the possibility to shift around hundreds of millions in brand valuations. Anyone stodgy will lose.

One critical rule of thumb, especially when you consider all those carbon neutral PRs is that it takes many multiples more energy to create the bottle than it does to create the distillate that fills it. Distilleries may be going carbon neutral but glass factories at the moment are not. Glass may appeal to consumers over plastic because of its chemical neutrality and supposed re-cycleability, but many studies find plastic systems like bag-in-the-box as having less environmental impact than glass. No wonder the wine industry has adopted it for commodity wine years ago.

[I tried to explore the specific math of energy consumption of a liter of distillate versus the bottle and sent it off to an engineer to check the numbers. The bottle always takes more energy but the multiple can drop from extremely high when you consider efficient column spirits to still very high when you consider pot distillation with hours of time under heat.]

Below in the appendix you will find my notes and figures on bottle weights from the small survey I conducted.

One question in the last post asked if we can make any meaningful difference if we purchase more spirits as large format handles which became a trend during the pandemic as bars did extreme batching to sell cocktails to go and distributors faced shortages of typical liters. What do we gain in economy if we go from 750 ml to 1000 to 1.75L? Sadly, I did not get to survey particular brands within their own bottles scale ups. The change in economy I observed is nothing to write home about even when you look at averages in the economy glass sector. If we consider a 750 ml bottle that weighs 400 grams and then transition to a liter that weighs 500 grams, that is a liquid volume increase of 33% but a glass volume increase of 25%. The difference is not remarkable. The lightest handle was just over twice the weight of the lightest 750 and the volume change is just as narrow. This trend also holds for wine. Many 750 ml wine bottles weigh in the ball park of 468-550 grams while the much criticized heavier double bottles are available at a wasteful 800 grams. Magnums double the volume but then the glass mass often doubles as well, commonly ranging from 920-1100 grams and not presenting a savings. I took these wine figures directly from a glass manufacturers website, but when I tried to scrape similar data for distillate bottles none were available or no one returned emails for details.

We can conclude that we cannot do much within our present system. The system must change and among the best ways to begin that process is to study other systems from around the world.

To get more information on international practices, I started to write to contacts around the world as well as interviewed my employer who is intrigued by this project. My employer noted right away that his recycling prices increased when China and other countries stopped accepting U.S. recyclables. Recycling cost therefore are more than freight and no doubt likely to increase. Recycling does not solve our problems and is a large expense for many. Reuse is the only viable solution.

The first anecdote received was that the TTB was going to change its “standards of fill final rule” and possibly allow larger formats. This however turned out only to allow 1.8L handles which is a 50 ml increase from 1.75L. At the same time, the law now allows even smaller odd bottles like 700 ml which will likely only effect the market for niche specialty bottlings.

The same source provided a link to a 6.3L format for the cult Amaro Nonino. This product is not sold for economy but rather as a trophy and I have seen similar sizes for antique display bottles. What we learn is that this is legally permissible where it is sold and could no doubt set a precedent for a format where the glass is re-used instead of recycled. Judging by extra large format wine bottles, the size likely offers no economy on the glass weight itself.

Another source pointed to recyclable bag-in-tank beer which seems to be a virtually unknown concept in the U.S. restaurant scene. I have no direct experience but they appear to allow larger volumes than 15 gallon kegs and help maintain sanitary conditions for volumes that may sit around for extended durations because of size. It was explained to me that they can be filled from the back of a truck similar to fryer oil. The volume commitments likely restrict variety which is one of the hallmarks of the American brewing scene. [I am curious if these systems offer any opportunities to Arroyo style ferments that must be ultra sanitary when no clean in place steam system is available.] A few notable large scale American brewers use them such as Sam Adams and Founders. This anecdote does not apply to spirits distribution, but illustrates the fact that numerous bulk systems are in common use around the world that are not well known to the American market.

A few years ago I was gifted a 3 liter box of rum from Guadaloupe which used the classic bag-in-box system commonly employed for cooking wine. This was not a remarkable rum from the get go, so it is hard to say if the vessel had any impact on sensory quality. It was purchased in Guadaloupe and easily made it back to the U.S. through customs. Wouldn’t it be nice to get some bag-in-box Noilly Prat? I’ve heard it discussed years ago if vermouth could be packaged that way under current U.S. law, but never seen a producer try to do it. The time is now.

[Fireball is currently offering a box at PA state stores containing two 1.75L bags for a whopping 3.5 liters in one sale! Is this currently above board or are they bending the law?] [My understanding is that this was controversial, but they won and are pushing the boundaries again to 4.75 liters.]

An extremely helpful set of anecdotes (and great source for future journalism!) came from Annabel Thomas of the Nc’nean distillery in Scotland who was the subject of a Forbes article on carbon neutral distilleries. Annabel was kind of enough to answer a series of questions I had. Nc’nean produces a botanical spirit (not exactly a gin) that they are legally allowed to sell in bulk but they only do so through direct distribution to local on-premise accounts. This comes in the form of 10 liter recyclable plastic Jerry cans (sometimes called “jerricans”) which are not yet returnable and refillable. Sizes greater than 2 liters have no restrictions so it could just as easily be 5 or 20 liters. They provide a simple label with all stated information on the Jerry can, but no labels for the decanters that it will be served out of. The system appears to not be fussy.

According to Thomas, Nc’nean is not permitted to sell their whiskey bulk because of laws which state that Scotch whiskey must be bottled in Scotland. These old laws may be a form of protectionism to support Scottish jobs but are no longer relevant because of the adoption of bottling automation and of course our pressing environmental concerns. I eventually learned [24:45 minute mark of the Eco-spirits interview] that there are significant exceptions, but they are not yet permissible at the level of a bar decanting from any ordinary bulk container. You can buy export bulk unbottled Scotch whiskey, but you need a permit and a certified bottling plant which no doubt provides protocols that prevent fraud.

An interesting anecdote arrived late from Barbados. A point of discussion in creating a Barbados rum GI is restricting Barbados rum to being bottled in Barbados. This it turns out is not about protecting labor, but instead, it is about ensuring that only Barbados water is used. In many cases when spirits are sold in bulk, they are watered at the point of bottling because pretty much all distilleries use extremely well purified water. This can be a problem for fine spirits because aromas can break (i.e. esters split) from watering too fast. My understanding is that Foursquare has proposed this strict bottling rule while WIRD is already participating in micro-bulk programs like eco-tote. The proposed rule may inadvertently make Barbados rum a lot less environmentally friendly and competitive in foreign markets. I think the intention may be to hinder WIRDs bulk business related to products like Malibu rum or sales to extremely large buyers like E&A Scheer, but I do not know enough. My take is that rules should be proposed to protect water but not limit bottling and the reason is not because the water is special (your fermentation water is special while you may be kidding yourself about pre-treated proofing water), but because it forces large corporate interests to take an interest in the quality of local water, protecting residents that also draw from the same source. These corporate interests cannot solve all local water problems, but it is more skin in the game. I have also heard many tales of Martinique rhum being improperly watered in France and the aroma consequently damaged. I do believe if you were going to aim a regulation at solving aroma breakage, research should be done to quantify the problem and I have not seen that happen. The Barbados GI pissing contest hopefully will evolve to recognize the single use glass problem.

Finally, many people tried to put Eco-tote from Eco-spirits on my radar, but could not say anything specific about it because it is only a legal option in few countries, particularly in Asia. I requested more information about Eco-tote, but no one got back to me.

Eco-spirits has some impressive PR and already very cool emerging partnerships. It is worth starting with this very informative youtube interview with the founders [second interview]. From a few mutual friends, I have only heard the best things about their team. In a nut shell, they created a re-usable vessel that appears to be 4.5 liters which can be decanted for use behind a bar or pumped with portion control depending on local regulations. Their vessels get returned and refilled at a distribution center local to a major market. On the one hand, this is exactly what the industry needs, but on the other hand do we really need such a proprietary technocratic solution when we could just use jugs and funnnels? I keep hearing the word technology and there isn’t much technology to having a large container that can get poured into smaller containers and re-used. Everything seems to revolve around legal permissions that are very hard to establish. I approached eco-spirits with trepidation but have been continuously won over as I ponder what any industry change is up against.

At the 26:00 minute mark, eco-spirits mentions starting to work with smaller brands as opposed to the giants, but they are still talking about the $1/ounce premium sector that many of us in the U.S. are not able to pour at our neighborhood bars. The market that may be the most volumetricly significant, at least in the U.S., is the economy sector. I still buy a lot of spirits that range from as low as $0.30/ounce to $0.75/ounce.

A cost comparison comes up at 26:45 that shows a dramatic reduction of price [greater than 10%] in Singapore when moving Plantation three star from bottles to eco-totes which is $45 down to $39. This is incredibly meaningful to me and parallels a lot of the price savings seen the U.S. when moving from liters to 1.75L handles. Hospitality margins are incredibly stressed and besides carbon, all that glass has a steep dollar cost with very little utility to the consumer. We need to learn more specifics, but bottles can cost anywhere from $1-2 each (this assumes purchases in the high thousands) and for the smallest producers that have no automation, bottling labor expense can be significant. Could 10% or more of what we pay for really be the bottle we immediately throw away?

Eco-spirits does not tell us how much their vessel costs, but if we assume each use replaces at least $10-15 worth of glass, with a very short cycle of re-use for a container, we can estimate costs of $75USD would be reasonable (for high volume production). Even considering a tote investment, re-use replaces a very significant dollar value of glass and a strong business model starts to emerge. Large format purchases in re-usable containers very quickly become far more than about carbon and can cut the wasteful dollar expense of glass that burden fragile hospitality margins. When something has to give, where else is the money going to come from to provide paid sick days and subsidized health care.

Column A (pointless burdensome glass) —> Column B (staff living wage & health care).

My restaurant is high volume and I can immediately think of 10 products on my cocktail menu I would immediately adopt in a tote with barely a hiccup in logistics and that probably represents 75%+ of my liquid volume. My employer was also gung-ho! But now think of a cruise ship. They would go 100% tote if they haven’t already because of their unique scale and spatial needs as well as the free for all laws of international waters (someone please investigate their practices). Do they quietly use their own bulk systems we can learn from or are they ripe to be early adopters?

A focus of eco-spirits at the moment is overcoming the strict regulatory environment which seems to be concerned with fraud, and this appears to be driving a lot of the design decisions in regards to tote itself. This is a much bigger deal in the markets they started with than in the U.S. For adoption, they must also woo luxury brands, small and large, which are concerned with optics even if some of that works against solving the original problem such as all the aluminum in the tote. The aluminum frame for the tote seems like it would do less to pad an impact than crating glass or even HDPE in recyclable cardboard such as is common for fryer oil packaging.

My takeaway is that anyone who can use eco-spirits or any bulk solution in their locality absolutely should. Eco-spirits should expand with a focus on economy spirits instead of luxury brands (so I can actually use it). Really, they should tackle anything volumetricly significant. Finally, when an open source re-usable system becomes legal such as a glass demi-john or plastic Jerry-can palletized in cardboard (like fryer oil) with a funnel, that is where we go next. We get away from single use glass as soon as we can.

If you go back to the video interview, a vision for the U.S. is presented at the 21:00 minute mark and impressive achievements are shared from a case study in Singapore that should motivate any regulator. The next step may be taking our unique vantage points & contact lists and introducing the heads of trade groups, elected officials, and contacts at the TTB to the concepts and their numbers.

I contacted the head of a large spirits trade group to put the glass problem on their radar. They were very much aware but acknowledged that it was not yet significantly on the radar of the producers they represent. You can count these producers on your fingers and we can make a quick list of their ambassadors as well as influencers who are close to their owners. It should not be hard to raise the status of the issue.

I heard anecdotes from an important small craft distiller that the biggest issue their trade group is working on is the direct to consumer sales issue which I believe will allow mail order sales. Another issue is allowing the USPS to deliver alcohol which is prohibited from. All alcohol is shipped by UPS, Fedex, etc. They also mentioned that there are laws that prohibit bottle re-sue but that may be the basic stuff that prevents a handle from being decanted into a liter to save money. It may not prevent a bottle’s label from being removed, the bottle being cleaned, re-filled, and re-labeled. I will have to seek out more specifics.

There are lots of ways to measure bottle weight. You can simply weigh an empty bottle or you can even weigh a full bottle and subtract the weight of the liquid if we assume a volume is as printed and the specific gravity matches the ABV. We can even be accurate enough assuming the specific gravity is always 0.948 (40% ABV at 20°C). For something like a gin with a slightly higher ABV, the change in gravity would only flatter the glass a little more.

I performed an basic survey based on what was within arms reach but sadly I missed a few things I was interested in like St-Germain.

For 750 ml bottles I found a range as exemplary as Pimm’s with roughly 400 grams to as leaden as Sipsmith at 787 grams. Many wine bottles can be had for 500 grams. I have batched many a Sipsmith and immediately disposed of the bottles. Other bartenders dislike them as well because they don’t fit their pourers. The bottle has a minor embossing, but is nothing special like that of Tanq 10.

McCleland’s Single Malt 515 g
Seagram’s Gin 458 g
Pimm’s 397 g
Tanqueray No. Ten 681 g
Sipsmith 787 g
St. George gin 604 g

Liters were quite interesting with Titos’ of all bottles being the most exemplary. No wonder they are dominating the market! They even beat out the well vodka liter. Is this a conscious choice for Titos? Is it significant to their ability to always have a good price? I find Grey Goose insulting! I had been successful getting rid of Belvedere & Chopin at the bar and I almost won with Grey Goose. I nearly got the place to only serve Titos during the height of the pandemic. 500 grams should easily be possible for a liter.

Econo liter used by various 539 g
Titos liter 475 g
Econo vodka liter 546 g
Grey Goose 825 g
Ketel One 655 g
Castillo silver rum 498 g

Hornitos tequila 745 g
Bluecoat local gin 862 g
Beefeater 702 g
Tanqueray 661 g
Monkey 47 731 g

Cazadores tequila 1105 g
Lunazul 858 g

I will try to add to these when opportunity knocks.

We see some incredible information here from The Cary Company who sells packaging materials in a comparison of choosing glass versus plastic. It is very instructive to reproduce a small section of their article:

3. Shipping Glass vs Plastic in Bulk

Glass vs Plastic Weight Shipping Cost

Shipping glass can become expensive fast. This is because glass is typically more fragile and heavier than plastic, leading to higher freight costs. A plastic 2 fl. oz bottle may weigh only .023 lbs. while its glass counterpart weighs .177 lbs. This seems like a small difference when comparing a single bottle but when ordering pallets in bulk, it can add up to large figures that impact your profit margin. Additionally, even with extreme care in shipping, some glass bottles might break during handling.

Plastic, on the other hand, is lightweight and durable, making it much more suitable for transportation than glass. It requires less gas and oil than glass to transport, expending less energy and leaving a smaller carbon footprint. If you need to ship your container long distances, plastic stands as the economic and often eco-friendly option.

4. Which Costs More, Glass or Plastic?

Not only is glass more expensive to ship, it also costs more to produce primarily due to the amount of heat required during production. Glass manufacturing is energy-intensive accounting for 1% of total industrial energy use in an Energy Information Administration (EIA) survey of the manufacturing sector. Natural gas fuels most of this energy.

The melting point of plastic is much lower than glass, requiring less energy during production. With new technology developments in plastic molding, manufacturing plastic containers has become even more affordable. At one point, producing new plastic was even cheaper than recycling it. Economically, plastic exceeds glass in terms of both production and shipping.

Besides, the environmental burden, consumers may also be burdened with unnecessary expense of wasted extravagance.

Must read resources from the wine industry version of this issue:

Glass Dismissed by Jancis Robinson with a notable reply from the European Container Glass Federation.

Carbon footprints, wine and the consumer by Jancis Robinson

Important statistics about American wine bottles being sourced from China (again by Jancis Robinson):

US imports of glass containers from China increased by 55 per cent to 2.1 billion in the five years to 2018, according to US trade data; industry estimates that year were that 70 per cent of the bottles filled by American wine bottlers were sourced from China, and that proportion is likely to have grown since. America’s domestic glass bottle industry has been shrinking too: between 2005 and 2011, 11 US glass container manufacturing plants closed, leaving 43.

Aleesha Hansel has started a petition (please sign) to reduce single use glass in the wine industry by shunning heavier bottles.

A recently learned anecdote is that large companies like a liquor conglomerate or large beer brand have decade and multi decade contracts for glass. Any significant move to glass re-use may jeopardize these contracts and create large incentives to maintain them. The magnitude and extent of this is not well understood.

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